The formal study of nature is referred to as “science,” and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve always found it somewhat amusing that part of “the nature of science” is “to study nature.” (Yes, it’s quite possible that I’m easily amused.) The word “science” is derived from the Latin word “scientia,” which means “knowledge.” In addition, the Latin word “scire,” which means “to know,” may have been derived from the word “scindere,” which means “to cut” or “to divide.” Therefore, the word “scire” may have also meant “to separate one thing from another,” or “to discern,” which has led to the supposition that “scientia” referred to knowledge obtained through the taking apart, or careful analysis, of physical evidence.
Today, the traditional definition of “science” is that it is the study of natural objects and events by means of a systematic process involving observation, description, identification and categorization, prediction, experimentation, and testable explanations. Scientists – those who are trained for, and whose jobs consist of, the study of nature – may pursue one, several, or all of these activities in their quest for the laws, hypotheses, and theories that comprise scientific knowledge.
But before I proceed to more fully explain the various aspects of the scientific process, I must consider the question that was posed to me as a science teacher by one of my fifth-grade students . . . who raised her hand at the beginning of the school year and asked, rather petulantly:
“Why do we have to study science, anyway? “
I don’t exactly remember how I answered her question, but I suspect that, caught off guard as I was, I stuttered something to the effect of: “So you know how the world around you works! Don’t you think that’s important?” Unfortunately, I do recall that the expression on my student’s face in response to my answer reflected her utter lack of interest in understanding how the world worked, which only reinforced my determination to make the study of nature exciting and interesting for her and the other students.
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“This is so much fun!”
So, why would humans have any interest at all in studying nature? Well, in the distant past, the very survival of each human being depended upon his/her having at least a minimal understanding of nature. For instance, the time remaining in the day to find food and shelter for the night depended upon the position of the sun in the sky, the prevention of poisoning depended upon the accurate identification of plants, the ability to hunt more efficiently depended upon the discovery of rocks that could be chipped into arrowheads, the avoidance of predators depended upon the knowledge of when and where those predators searched for food, and so on.
Around 8000 B.C., humans began using their observations of natural phenomena to raise crops and corral wild animals. Over the next couple of thousand years, the development of agriculture spread all over the world, and humans began to give up their nomadic, hunter-gatherer existences in favor of establishing permanent settlements. These settlements eventually grew into cities, where it became more productive to share resources . . . which in turn made it easier for humans to pursue activities other than finding and raising food. By about 3000 to 2000 B.C., humans had begun to count and measure, to establish calendars, and to accumulate additional information regarding human anatomy / physiology, medicines, and astronomy.
Of course, there were still many questions to which humans would have appreciated the answers – e.g., what caused the earth to shake, volcanoes to erupt, or lightning to strike, and could these events be prevented from occurring? – but, not having the tools to study such events, humans tended to attribute their occurrence to the actions of supernatural or mythological gods, and often gave “offerings” to appease these deities in an effort to stop them from wreaking havoc and destruction.
Then, around 500 B.C., certain people in the Greek-speaking cities of Ionia (modern-day Turkey), later called natural philosophers, began to reject supernatural and mythological explanations, and to approach questions regarding nature as if they could be answered by systematically examining and critically analyzing the physical world. For example, Thales of Miletus, perhaps the first of the natural philosophers, concluded that earthquakes were not the result of the god Poseidon’s actions, but of the land floating on water and being rocked by waves. (Which wasn’t exactly accurate, of course, but substitute “magma” for “water” and “convection currents” for “waves,” and it’s not that far from what we know now, either.) Motivated primarily by curiosity, people began proposing more and more natural explanations for physical phenomena; and over the succeeding centuries, so many of these explanations were used to create medications, techniques, instruments, and machines that almost every aspect of present-day life, at least in industrialized nations, is reliant upon scientific discovery and invention.
And that brings us to the two primary answers for why modern-day scientists study nature: pure intellectual curiosity; and to improve human existence. It is easy to understand why scientists are paid to pursue the latter goal, but why pay them to pursue the former goal? Aside from the fact that the detailed analysis of nature can help satisfy our uniquely human desire to understand our place in the world (for better or worse), the more concrete answer to this question is that many, if not most, of the practical applications of science were the logical or accidental result of research into entirely different phenomena. To describe only a few of an almost endless list of examples: the melting of a chocolate bar in the pocket of the scientist building magnetrons for combat radar equipment led to the invention of the microwave oven; the study of digestive enzymes led to the invention of laundry stain removers; the reflective material protecting spacecrafts from radiation led to the invention of home insulation; and the unintentional growth of mold on a culture plate – and the disappearance of bacteria around that mold – led to the invention of penicillin, the first modern antibiotic.
Of course, elementary and secondary students of science may have little to no curiosity regarding the natural world, nor may they ever pursue science as a career to improve human existence. So why force them to study science? My answer to this question today would include (but not necessarily be limited to) one or more of the following reasons:
(1) The study of science will exercise your intellect (as does the study of any subject);
(2) It will provide you with the information you need to make better decisions regarding your health and well-being;
(3) It will allow you to answer your future children’s nature-related questions (which will make you look very smart in their eyes), and to participate in discussions with your friends concerning the latest scientific discoveries;
(4) It will increase your awareness of why it is important, and what you can do, to conserve natural resources and prevent pollution;
(5) It will help you to know what to do and what not to do when you encounter an emergency situation at home (e.g., an earthquake, a tornado, a fire, a power outage, etc.);
(6) It will provide you with the information you need to survive should you ever be stranded outdoors without the benefits of modern technology;
(7) It will allow you to better determine whether your elected officials are scientifically literate and therefore able to make rational science-based decisions;
(8) It will help you assess the long-term issues that arise in everyday life, such as financial, relationship, or child-raising problems, in a more rational, analytical manner;
(9) It will increase your ability to better distinguish between fact and fiction in the media (e.g., by detecting gaps in logic and errors in arguments), thereby decreasing your gullibility as you contemplate headlines, articles, and advertisements; and
(10) It will provide you with the skills you need for any type of job or career that involves logical thinking, questioning, investigation, pattern recognition, and problem-solving.
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“Whaaat? Stephen Hawking said there are no black holes!?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for everyone, understanding nature through science cannot help but enrich your life. Yes, there are some who worry that science, by reducing the complexity of nature to an orderly sum of its component parts, also reduces the beauty and wonder of nature – a phenomenon described as “unweaving the rainbow” by the poet John Keats. To which I say: Nonsense!
How can learning that each human body is composed of 37 trillion cells, that each of these cells engages in over a trillion chemical reactions every single day, and that all of these cells are in communication with each other to ensure the orderly function of the body, not increase our sense of wonder? Add to that our dependence upon various bacteria, plants, and animals, all of which are incredibly complex entities, as well as the fact that each of us is an entirely unique being, and our lives seem all the more extraordinary. Similarly, learning that we live on a planet that revolves around just one of the 300 billion stars in our galaxy, that our galaxy is just one of the 200 billion galaxies in the universe, that our universe is more than 30 billion light-years in diameter, and that any other intelligent life in the universe may either be too far to contact or not exist at all, cannot help but cause us to again marvel at our existence.
For those who need a bit of mystery in order to feel inspired, you can take comfort from the fact that each new piece of the puzzle we discover regarding nature almost always creates more questions and more mystery . . . rather like pulling apart a seemingly endless number of nesting dolls. And, just perhaps, the more we realize we don’t know about nature, the more our minds are opened to new possibilities and the more our imaginations and creativity are sparked. To quote David Attenborough: “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” I couldn’t agree more!